The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Books I Read: July – August 2020

bookshelf books
Part of Your World: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell

So there’s this “Twisted Tale” series from Disney books that’s essentially all about screwing the heroines out of their happy ending and making the story “what if” instead. I don’t know why Disney’s trying to do this. To reach a mature audience you have to make everything grimdark and miserable? The first series was villain-focused with works like “The Beast Within” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and then a YA adventure of Disneyland crossed with “they only come out at night”. I hated all of them passionately.

I did not hate this.

In fact, I kind of like it. It’s like a Twilight Zone sequel to “The Little Mermaid” — what if Ariel lost? The writing feels more gothic and less modern, more ornate and unnecessarily lengthy (probably because someone’s trying to make a word count). But the story stays moving.

It lacks the sense of Disney whimsy that makes the first one magical. Sebastian’s now an old fuddy-duddy, not a wise-cracking crab. Scuttle is senile and has a grand-daughter. Ariel is world-weary and jaded by her experience. But maybe that’s plausible, given these characters didn’t get a “Happily Ever After”. It’s made for adults, but lacks the Disney joy. Like Disney’s characters continued by Hans Christian Andersen.

A big flaw is that the world-building cribs the Disney movie and the fairy tale. The author picks and chooses from both (like turning into sea foam or immortal souls, but ignoring the “walking on knives” or the prince treats her like a pet), and sometimes that canon comes into conflict. It retcons some plot points and isn’t explicit about where the cut-off for the timeline is.

Basically, the key moment is that Scuttle doesn’t fly by the window where Ursula/Vanessa is singing and see that she’s really the sea witch. However, Ariel still somehow gets to the boat to confront Ursula. But I guess she’s too late? Then there’s a big Ursula vs. Triton battle (not in the book) and she wins, polyp-ifies Triton, and becomes Eric’s wife. But she wipes everyone’s memories so they don’t remember mermaids, and everything’s back to status quo. And now Ursula is starting to invade human lands.

Except…

Ursula never wanted to rule the human world. She wanted to rule the sea. She doesn’t give a flying fish about humans. Why would she? There’s more power in the oceans than one tiny human kingdom. She wants that trident and that crown. Eric is just a big dumb meathead means to an end. Ariel is a pawn for greater rewards (i.e. a contract that ropes Triton into sacrificing his crown for his daughter) and revenge for… something (the movie doesn’t say).

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. She’s a Faustian villain, a vehicle for Ariel to make a deal with the devil to learn the hard lesson that she shouldn’t let her desires lead her into reckless decisions.

But this is Ariel’s story. It’s an adventure and a redemption arc and it paints Ariel with an empowering brush. Ariel has had years to learn the consequences of her actions, to deal with the loss of her father, her role as Princess of the Sea, leaving the one she loved behind. It means Ariel and Eric take time to establish a relationship as they figure out what to do about Ursula. It was a satisfying follow-up to the original movie and I want to read more from the Twisted Tale series.

In reality, if Ariel did lose to Ursula, the sequel should be about her getting a lawyer and learning contract law.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

This did not have enticing beginning. It starts with a prologue and poetry and description and other shit. Not something happening or an intriguing event. It didn’t pull me in.

But I kept reading and I’m glad I did. This is a story about a woman raising herself in nature. (And almost by nature.) She’s one of those white trash families in the bayou: alcoholic father, living in a shack in a swamp, hillbilly, thick accent, tobacco-chawin’ types that has too many kids, like “Cletus” in The Simpsons. But this one’s played straight. Very straight. Basically her whole family abandons her by the age of ten and somehow she manages to survive.

At its core, it’s a coming-of-age book set in the deep south with the climax being a court trial. (Why do I keep finding these “To Kill a Mockingbird” remixes?) It takes place in two time periods. About 75% of the content is a survival story (a little reminiscent of “Island of the Blue Dolphins”) about how she managed to live alone in the swamp as a ten-year-old and not go crazy or starve to death. (Along with life and love and bullies and other things that come with growing up in 1952.) The other quarter is a murder-mystery trial taking place in the present (which for them is 1969).

Two big things stood out to me. One was the poetic descriptions. You really get a feel for how Kya embraces nature. She lives in it, soaks in it, it becomes her and she becomes it. She lives there so long she is symbiotic to nature. Very focused on the beauty and power of nature. If you like poetry, you’ll like this part.

But when it comes to any plot elements that involve anyone other than Kya and the marsh, it drops into cliches. There’s the teenage bully, the truant officer, the football quarterback. Classism, racism, and sexist asshole redneck archetypes. Anyone other than Kya sounds like a video I watched in health class.

It’s not my favorite book, but it’s a great book. It’s not for everyone, but this thing’s been on the NYT Bestseller list for years now. It’s got nearly a million ratings on GoodReads. So go read the reviews by people who can write them better than me.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green

I thought it was a better read than the first book. It’s slow to start, but then really gets exciting.

The first act is a combination of “aftermath from the first book” and “setup for this second book”. And there are times the narrative starts to wax poetic about fame and power and metahumanism that it starts to sound like one of the vlogbrothers videos (though these are tough questions and deserve attention). But then the plot busts open and you get invested in what’s happening.

I guess part of that is that there was time set aside to build up the characters. Each one is distinct and likable in their own way. I think it’s improved by having multiple characters’ POV instead of just the one (who got a little millennial-obnoxious after a while).

Once again, we’re talking sequel so if you read the first book, you know if you want to read the second. But take comfort that the second improves on the first. I think Hank Green took what he learned, applied it, and the effects are palpable.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

So it’s hard to write a review of this book without being biased. I’ve been watching her since she was a pig-tailed nostalgia chucker and stayed following through Disney film criticism, Transformers film theory, obsession with musicals, and Hugo nominations. She doesn’t release material often, but she’s never disappointed. So as I read it, I tried to be objective in my evaluation–if you’d never heard of Lindsay Ellis, what would you think of this book?

Ellis has described Axiom’s End as “Stranger Things” meets “Arrival” (the good one with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, not “The Arrival“). Personally, I think it’s more like “E.T.” meets “Independence Day” with an infusion of “Beauty and the Beast”/”Phantom of the Opera”-style plot (you know, those stories where an emotionally unavailable anti-villain and a warm-hearted girl fall in love even though it’s wrong and would never work). The external story is about xenophobia and protecting a group of refugee aliens from bounty hunters with technology way beyond our own. The internal story is about the relationship between the main woman and her alien companion.

The beginning is good at “show, don’t tell” and that’s tough for a beginning, because you want to get backstory out there without being infodumpy, but you’ve got to do it expediently or the plot can’t start. Then it gets complex. Way more complex than I expected from someone whose most popular video is about Disney’s Aladdin. (but I guess this went through 26 drafts, so it makes sense. In software development, we call that “feature creep”.) Good, hard science about time dilation, political machinations, and Dyson spheres. One of the major motifs in the book is language (par for the course when dealing with aliens), and that gets tricky when you’re trying to remember who’s who in the alien world–what is a “similar”? Is Esperas a name or a term? How is Cefo related to everyone again?

And here’s what I didn’t expect: it’s a love story that’s not a romance. Like a “hurt/comfort” fic? For all those “comp titles” I mentioned before, the real root of the plot is basically 2007’s “Transformers” by way of Carl Sagan or Isaac Asimov. An aimless young adult makes contact with an alien soldier from a space war galaxies away. And that war’s coming to Earth. It’s evocative of a fan fiction that got blessed by the blue fairy and turned into a real boy for being so good.

A lot of the reviews describe it as “fun”, but I don’t know if I’d call it that. The complexity turned me off, because that reeks of hard science fiction, which I’m not a fan of (too much research, not enough characters). But I would like to see the sequel, because I want to see where the girl and the alien’s relationship goes.

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby
(unfinished)

It’s a collection of essays (I think they’re gleaned from her blog) about regular life stuff. You know: dating, work, money, The Bachelorette, eating ice cream in bed. The first thing I thought was “Damn, that’s witty. I wish I could write like this.”

The second thing was “I don’t think this is for me.”

The writer is a single woman. She wants to get married… except she shaves her head, is overweight, is thirty-six years old (but looks older — her admission), has to wear adult undergarments, only graduated high school, works as a receptionist at a vet clinic, can’t have children (I don’t mean infertile, I mean she can’t physically run around a yard after a toddler), and is lazy (see aforementioned eating-ice-cream-in-bed, plus her own admittance that “marriage is hard”). So… what exactly is it you bring to the table?

Yes, you have obstacles in your life that make for an interesting memoir… but I’m wondering if some of these problems aren’t brought on by your own decisions (or lack thereof). She was in poverty, but now her spending habits are ridiculous (to make up for lost time, she says). She hates cats, but takes home a kitten that no one wants and clearly hates her. And she ends up taking care of it. And it still hates her.

But I also wonder if I’m not in the right place for this, mentally, with everything going on (i.e. waves hand to everything).

The story of shitting herself from bad Burger King on the side of the road in front of friends from bad Burger King with the story of how her father died. Her alcoholic absent father with dementia. While also dealing with her mother, both of whom had to be put in a home by her when she was eighteen because she was born late. I can’t deal with that right now.

Or I’m not the target audience at all. This might be for the “loves-The-Kardashians-non-ironically” types. Those who embrace Lizzo. Trying to convince Facebook you’re living a luxurious life. But lacking ambition or drive to achieve something. To leave the world a little better than when you found it.

The Women In the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
(unfinished)

Historical fiction about a set of German women friends living through the war in Nazi Deutschland. It’s evocative of “The Sound of Music” because it starts with fancy rich people enjoying their privileged lives and then it all goes to shit when the invasions begin. Some of them try to do something about it, some are just trying to survive, but everyone suffers.

And that’s the problem: I’ve seen this story before, dozens of times. The horrors of war. Yes, I get it. Nazis are bad. Everyone’s son or husband dies. And this volume offers nothing new. Maus, War Horse, The Book Thief, Schindler’s List, The Diary of Anne Frank, Inglorious Basterds, Slaughterhouse Five, Number the Stars. I get it, World War II was bad. You are bringing nothing new to the table. It’s a by-the-numbers “suffering in war” story.

And the time-jumping, I just don’t see the point of it. The book shifts around multiple perspectives, multiple places (all German places I’ve never heard of), multiple time points. And there’s no reason for it that I can see, neither style nor substance. Why confuse us? What does the story gain that it couldn’t from a straight start-to-finish narrative. You’ve already told me who survives so what “message” does your “medium” present?

It just wasn’t flipping my cookie, so I moved on.

Straight on Till Morning: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell

It maintains some of the similarities of the other “Twisted Tale” I read. There’s a definite strong slant on morphing these “damsels in distress” into “strong female characters”. The fortunate thing is that they keep their personalities (relatively) while doing this. Wendy is still a proper Englishwoman who overthinks things and talks a lot.

It plays fast and loose with the canon, cherry-picking from the book and movie (like Wendy’s house is here, but the jerk-mermaids are also here). It takes a while to actually get to Neverland, and when you do, it’s not as imaginative as I thought it could be.

It gets real sludgy in the middle. Clearly the author is trying to make a word count, and when you’ve got a basic quest plot, there isn’t a whole lot that happens to change the character or affect them personally. Hook is also a letdown, as he’s portrayed as sad-crazy, not funny-crazy.

It’s not disappointing, but it’s not blow your socks off. Take it this way–even the best of the direct-to-video Disney sequels were only middlin’, with thin plots and uninventive story paths.

And it cops out on the Indians.

More What Ifs from The Little Mermaid

ariel the little mermaid glow

What if Ursula never gave Ariel a vagina? What if she didn’t know what one looked like, since she’s been under the sea for so long and has no interest in humans. So she just left her blank down there, like a Barbie doll, because she didn’t know there was supposed to be something else. That would explains Ariel’s lack of reaction to the new features between her legs (in that there wasn’t anything to react to).

Boy, wouldn’t that be a surprise for dear old Princey.

Ranking the Disney Princesses

disney princesses ranked

Now I could be real fancy and do the same thing I did for the villains, using all kinds of nuanced criteria, calculated factors, and science theory. But fuck it, I’m just going with my heart. After all, that’s what the princesses did, right?

From bottom to top:

Princess Aurora

She only has seventeen minutes of screen time. And she spends that either in a trance or dancing with owls and other vermin. Maybe that’s why Maleficent gets all the reviews, because it’s so easy to overshadow the protagonist.

Pocahontas

If it wasn’t for Aurora being such a piece of cardboard, she would get the award for worst. She’s preachy, hypocritical, and does nothing within her story arc. Her whole thing is “running from the steady path”, but she gets right back on it. Refusing the smoothest course gets people killed. Nice job breaking it, hero. People applaud her for her bravery, I call it not knowing risks, like playing with a bear cub, or getting right in front of a gun (or anything that happens in Wild). Oh, and Meeko’s a jerk too.

Snow White

She just looks like a creepy kewpie doll. I give a little credit that this was Disney’s first princess and she started many of the tropes (cleaning, woodland animals, singing, princes), but she looks like a mannequin and acts like a RealDoll. And the alabaster skin isn’t helping.

Cinderella

I give points for not falling into some of the more subtle trappings of the grouping. She’s not all sunshine and happiness with a kind word for everybody. She gets irritated at the clock, potshots the cat for ruining the clean floor, comments on her sisters’ “music lesson”, and broke the rules to get to the ball. (In my head canon, Cinderella pulled a Tyler Durden and actually coach-jacked someone to get there). She didn’t even go searching for a prince, she just wanted to have a good time.

Jasmine

Most people give Jasmine credit because he helped bloom their burgeoning sexuality. I don’t give points for that. It’s nice that she has enough self-worth to consider herself not a prize to be won… but she doesn’t do anything to distinguish herself to that end. She’s still the ball that Jafar and Aladdin are bouncing back and forth. A bare midriff does not a princess make.

Anna

She just had a Five Guys burder. “DAMN-DAMN-DAMN!”

The classic little sister. All hyper and plucky and clumsiness and adorkability. But after a while, wouldn’t that just grate on you? Yeah, she’s funny, but she can only accidentally hit you in the eye so many times. Thankfully, the point of Frozen is about her maturing, but her older sister makes us forget that she still exists.

Mulan

A tight little warrior. She’s not good at being a marriageable girl, but she’s a fine knight-in-shiny-underpants. But her lack of self-confidence gets annoying. Along with her stupid donkey-dragon that won’t shut up. Why couldn’t her and Pocahontas have switched sidekicks? And, look, I’m just gonna say it — she’s not that pretty. I like her resourcefulness, but her arc still hinges on refusing the steady path. Is she just a Chinese Pocahontas?

Tiana

I might have ranked her lower, but Doug Walker’s Top Ten Hottest Animated Women introduced me to a few factors I hadn’t thought of. Most of all that she’s such a workaholic (to the point of ridiculousness). And workaholics get shit done. I bet she’d still be baking beignets as a frog if she hadn’t changed back. And even though she has no relation to the bad guy, I like the Faustian bargain she’s faced with at the end. Plus her friend Lottie is hilarious.

Rapunzel

I consider Rapunzel an artsy version of Tiana. Whereas the queen of New Orleans learned business and food services, Rapunzel honed her art skills. If they went to college, Rapunzel would have gotten a B.A. and Tiana a B.S. The long hair is cool, but it would have been cooler if it moved on its own like Spawn’s cape and chains (the first trailer implied this was going to happen — maybe I just feel lied to). She has some of the same adorkability and clumsiness that Anna has, but it’s not as obnoxious. Maybe because she’s got Flynn to temper her out.

Belle

It’s hard to say no to a Disney princess who encourages reading. She wants to escape from the tiny town she’s in and she gets just that and more. But she’s a little snooty about it, both in the town and the castle. Even when the Beast allows her access to the castle, she still gets waited on hand and foot. It’s the servants trying to manipulate the two of them to get together. She doesn’t feel like she’s the avenue of her success. Her “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere…” sounds so cheesy now, especially that her entire character arc takes place in not that.

Moana

I think she needs more time to simmer and let us all contemplate her place in the context of Disney’s animated canon. Right now, we’re being blinded by the fact we’ve got a princess that’s shiny and new.

No, I was not talking about you.

Anyway, I like her as a combinations of Elsa and Anna + a dash of Lilo. If she’s got the chops to get the respect of her village at her age, then she’s all right by me. But she’s also got a demigod in her pocket and an ocean helping her out. Oh, don’t mind me, I’ve only got three-quarters of the world with my back. My only quibble is with her “chosen one” saddle she keeps melancholy over. Not even Harry Potter was this maudlin.

Elsa

I mean come on, can I say anything that hasn’t already been said? Sure you could make an argument that she’s a queen, not a princess. But she’s power and character flaws. All the adorkability of Anna plus all the struggle of a hero. She needs to find redemption. It’s her constant goal not to give into her power, her villainy, like the dark side of the force.

Merida

Poor Merida suffered from a clash of directors and production companies, but still managed to become a memorable character. I could watch her curly red hair fly around all day, it’s so beautifully animated. There’s bears, three little brothers, thick Scottish accents, swords, differing relationships with mothers and fathers, and independence.

Ariel

I had a “Little Mermaid”-themed party for my ninth birthday. And need I remind you I’m a boy. Nuff said.

Oh, you want more? She’s got it all: free-spirited, bright, pretty, young, curious, artistic, musical, selfless, protective, loyal. She’s got great sidekicks, great theme song, high intelligence, high relatability. If she was a D&D character she’d be overpowered.

Still not enough? Fine then, let me show you Exhibit A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H and most damning — I. You ain’t gonna convince me otherwise.

I’m Fixing a Plot Hole Where the Ocean Gets In

little mermaid writing note to eric

One of the biggest plot holes in The Little Mermaid that everyone brings up is “Why doesn’t Ariel just write out a message to Eric?” One could have explained that away by saying mermaids have no written language if not for Ariel’s signed contract. I’ve tried to explain it by saying it’s translation convention (the same way Klingons speak Klingonese to other Klingons, but we hear it as English). It’s possible that telling him might have an effect on him falling in love with her (like ulterior motives or the fact that she’s a mermaid). However, if the alternative is turning into kelp, I might risk it. But the sad short answer is if she does, there’s no movie.

However, I’ve come upon a possible theory (thanks to a tweet) that could explain this discrepensay. Keep in mind there’s a lot of conjecture here. These are all guesses based on evidence or absence of evidence (which is false cause and anecdotal at best). But at least it’s better than saying that the plot demands it or that Ariel is holding the idiot ball.

Ariel doesn’t know what a pen is. Scuttle never told her or misinformed her.

Let me explain. Ariel knows what a pen is — she uses one to sign her contract with Ursula — but she doesn’t know what humans use for a pen. We never see her write while she’s a human and we can presume she never sees anyone else write. Or she might believe humans don’t use them. It’s not mermaids without the written language, it’s the humans (from Ariel’s POV, at least).

One must presume that she never saw anyone in the world writing or reading. Based on what we see in the film, this is plausible. She spends day one getting clean, then has dinner with Eric. The next day is spent touring the kingdom. I don’t see any words during this part — not even the storefronts have signs. But let’s keep in mind this takes place between the 16th and 18th century. The commonality of literacy was questionable at best. And what it was in Denmark, I have no idea. And the third day, she spends most of it sulking while brainwashed Eric prepares for the wedding.

All right, so obviously there are some issues with this. Here are the big ones.

A) Ariel has books in her grotto.

True, but ocean water plus ink equals one destroyed book. If she found any that she could open without it crumbling to pieces, I doubt the words would stay.

B) But she holds a book during Part of Your World. She even points to something in it.

Yeah, she uses a book during her “questions and answers” lyric, but we never see what’s inside it. She points to something in it, so that likely means there’s still something to see in it. Could be a book of art for all we know. Since my argument is based on lack of evidence, I say counter-points can use the same. Besides, knowing humans have words doesn’t mean humans have something to write with.

C) Doesn’t Sebastian know what a pen is? 

sebastian the crab little mermaid sheepish
Who? Me?

By his own admission, Sebastian’s had copious interaction with the human world, by virtue of his crustacean nature (crustature?). We must assume he’s an intertidal crab (the other two kinds, marine and terrestrial, would die if they’re taken out of their respective environments).

Intertidal crabs must keep their leg cuticles moist in order to process oxygen from air. Meaning it’s not likely he strayed far from water in his life. And how many people bring pens to the beach? He was paying attention to the music.

But let’s presume he does know that humans write. I wouldn’t trust Sebastian to spread butter on my toast. He may be a court composer, but he’s a neurotic doofus. He’s too busy worrying about Ariel, the spell, King Triton’s wrath, Ursula’s magic, and his own safety. Just the fact that he has to keep his distance (which translates to all kinds of shenanigans) means his tiny crab brain’s too stressed to think about alternatives. He’s concentrating on playing the game: “You got to get dat boy to keess you.”

D) In “The Scuttle Strut” in Songs of the Sea, Scuttle is helping Ariel write a letter. He specifically says “First you need a tappelhooper / That’s what they use to write / A BALLPOINT tappelhooper / would really be out of sight”

All right, let’s assume that this album is canonical for the sake of argument. Scuttle’s statement implies that there is a difference between what humans use to write and what mermaids do.

But Scuttle never describes what it looks like. Without a picture, Ariel would have to imagine what a tappelhooper is.

She knows what a comb is, but thanks to Scuttle, thinks human combs look like forks. She knows what a saxophone is (or its coral equivalent during the “Under the Sea” sequence) but thinks human saxophones look like smoking pipes. Thus any attempt to ask for one would result in getting a cattle brand or butter churn. If somehow she was able to ask for a tappelhooper, all she’d get would be a funny look.

Also, let’s consider that the first patent for a ballpoint pen was in 1888 in Sweden. The Little Mermaid takes place in 1890 (this is inferred based on the architecture and technology presented, although the fashion borrows from several periods. The original fairy tale was written in 1836). Would it be commonplace enough for Scuttle to know about it by then? (I use the word “know” in the loosest sense of the term.)

E) Even if Ariel doesn’t know what the human pen is, why doesn’t she ask for a mermaid one? Why doesn’t she write it in the sand?

You got me there. We see Ariel use a fishbone pen to sign Ursula’s contract. When it’s presented to her, she knows what to do with it. Therefore, mermaids know what writing utensils are.

The best I can come up with (besides translation convention) is that she is so enthralled with being a human and living with Eric, she forgets all about this. Ariel is a headstrong, lovesick girl. No one said she’s a genius.

Personally, I’m more worried that Eric somehow hears Sebastian say Ariel’s name. Crabs can speak to humans? They just don’t notice? Is anyone worried about this?